As Iraq continues to dominate the headlines, the Middle East’s oldest conflict, involving Israel and the Palestinians, is pushed in the background.
Israel, still recovering from the shock of last summer’s inconclusive foray into Lebanon, is almost on autopilot. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his close associates, notably Shimon Peres, are looking for new personas for themselves. Before the mini-war they had Ariel Sharon’s policy of separation. Now they have nothing. At times the duo appear like Pirandellian characters in search of an author.
The Palestinians are in no better shape. Hamas has failed to assure the most basic functions of government. Clinging to the “destroy Israel slogan”, a wish rather than a policy, it has been incapable of securing a handle on reality. Contested at home and ignored abroad, Mahmoud Abbas who nominally presides over the Palestinian Authority, looks more like a vanishing political ghost of a wayward ship than its captain in a stormy sea.
The Israel-Palestine issue is also fading from European radars. At some point last summer German Chancellor Anegla Merkel appeared to be toying with the idea of “ doing something” about the oldest conflict in the Middle East. But, with her coalition on increasingly shaky ground and other key European powers heading for bumpy rides of their own, she has realised that no rabbit could be conjured out of that hat.
France is already in the throes of an uncertain presidential and parliamentary election that could lead to a change of government at all levels, or, even, produce nasty surprises.
Britain is also heading for the unknown with Prime Minister Tony Blair scheduled to step aside, plunging his Labour majority into a blood feud over his succession.
Italy’s even shakier coalition government, hanging on with the majority of just one, could also unravel at any time.
Things do not look better across the Atlantic.
With two years left of his second mandate, President George W Bush may not wish to play lame duck just yet. What is certain, however, is that his Israel-Palestine policy, known as “the roadmap”, stillborn as it was, is now pronounced dead by all concerned.
Besides the European Union and the US, the so-called “quartet” on the Middle East also included the United Nations and Russia.
Well, the UN has been on life-support for at least the past 15 years and would need the attention of its new South Korean Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, for several years before it can regain some credibility.
Russia is in no position to take any major diplomatic initiatives either. President Vladimir Putin is in his second and final term, and will certainly be more interested on fiddling with the Russian constitution, to prolong his own tenure, rather than putting his finger in a Middle Eastern hornet’s nest.
However, the Israel-Palestine issue cannot be kept on the backburner for very long.
For half a century it has been used and abused by all manner of adventurers as an ideological sauce to make the poisonous fare they served look better if not palatable.
This time around is no exception.
Iran’s ultra-radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, facing divisions within the establishment and growing unrest in the country, is trying to give his administration some lustre by championing the “ one state” formula on Palestine. So far he seems to have pressed Syria into his bandwagon, forcing Damascus to abandon its policy of “peace through negotiations”, formulated by the late President Hafez al-Assad in 1993.
The “one state solution” may appear attractive to those who, for a variety of reasons, dream of seeing Israel vanish from the map of the Middle East. In reality, however, the formula championed by Ahmadinejad has the immediate effect of rejecting initiatives aimed at helping the Palestinians create a state of their own.
The “one-state formula” takes the issue back to 1947, ignoring the lessons of the past half a century and the sufferings of three successive generations of Palestinians and Israelis. It is, at best, an exercise in political vanity, and, at worst, a cynical attempt at turning the Palestinians into sacrificial lambs at the altar of a regional power struggles.
It is against that background the latest Saudi call for an international conference on the Israel-Palestine merits attention.
At first glance, the idea of holding a conference may look like substituting process for policy. The Saudi proposal, however, comes with clear suggestions about the agenda. A statement issued by the Saudi Council of Ministers on Monday, calls for the conference to “ activate the peace process on the basis of the Arab peace plan and [the relevant] UN resolutions.”
Translated into plain language, this amounts to a rejection of the “ one-state” formula along with the now defunct “separation” policy that Olmert offered in the last Israeli election.
No one knows at this stage whether or not a conference would, or even could, be held. More importantly, no one could know whether a conference, if held and successfully conducted, would produce better result than a similar exercise in Madrid a15 years ago.
Nevertheless, the idea could have a positive impact on a number of fronts. It would force the Israelis to find a substitution for Kalmia’s“postponed” strategy, possibly by holding an early general election and forming a new coalition government. It would also oblige Hamas and Fatah to get their acts together, producing a synthesis of the latter’s crude Realpolitik and the former’s deadly utopianism.
First presented by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Ibn Abdul-Aziz and later approved at the Arab summit in Beirut 2002 , the Arab peace plan is aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state, the recognition of Israel by all Arab and Muslim nations, and turning the Middle East into a region of peaceful coexistence.
In other words, it is a strategic vision that goes beyond the immediate Israel-Palestine issue and takes into account the need for a fundamental change of attitudes in the region.
The plan, details of which remain to be worked out, should take into account the lessons of Madrid.
Despite the hopes that it inspired, Madrid failed because it ignored strategic imperatives and focused on tactical manoeuvres with the excuse of “confidence building”. We now know that no confidence could be built between adversaries with mutual suspicion written into their political genes. The strategy of confidence first and peace afterwards produced the second and third Intifadas along with Yasser Arafat’s corrupt and inept rule. It also helped turn Hamas into a force it had never dreamed of becoming while also encouraging the most radical elements in Israel.
There is not a single instance in history in which confidence building precedes peace. It is always the other way round: adversaries first make peace and then build mutual confidence over time, sometimes decades.
The Saudi idea is aimed at closure, a strategic accord that, unlike Madrid, will not leave the knife in the wound while he who holds it smiles at he who is feeling it in his flesh. The would-be conference could be useful only if it starts with the ultimate settlement, i.e. the creation of two states, within agreed and secure borders, recognised by all Arab and Muslim nations and guaranteed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council..